Eloise Hubbard, 06-13-99
Anchorage Daily News
Sunday, June 13, 1999
DANGER ON THE NENANAS
.J. Komarnitsky, Daily News Mat-Su Bureau
Photo By Laurent Dick, Special To The Daily News
Denali Park ---Eloise Hubbard and Doris North were just like thousands of other out-of-state visitors who come to Denali National Park each year. At 75, they wanted to see the wild frontier, but they weren't looking for too much adventure. A rafting trip down the Nenana River sounded safe and fun.
Bruce Hubbard remembers his wife told him, "If we don't go, we might miss something."
Two hours later, both women -- part of a church group visiting from Georgia -- were dead, dumped into the frigid river when their raft got caught in a backwash "hole." And Bruce Hubbard was standing on shore, warming up with three other passengers and the guide -- a 25-year-old woman in her first season with Alaska Raft Adventures.
State troopers ruled the deaths accidental. But the Memorial Day weekend accident stunned many who wondered how two people could die on a run done by thousands every year and considered safe enough for 5-year-olds. Denali National Park is one of the state's top tourist draws, a destination for residents and relatives and a key stop on tours organized by companies such as Princess and Holland America.
Using a network of cruise ships, buses and trains, these companies shuttle in thousands from around the world. They arrive in waves. They may spend only two or three days at the park but their sheer numbers and the millions of dollars they bring have spawned the booming tourism development known as "Glitter Gulch" outside the park gate
The half-mile stretch of highway is a tightly packed row of hotels, restaurants and gift shops that offer everything from postcards to aromatherapy candles. It's here that visitors can choose from a growing number of companies offering quick adventure trips such as flightseeing, horseback riding and rafting the big river that rolls alongside the highway just outside the park.
In this activity landscape, a float down the Nenana -- a big, strong, ice-cold river that can kill as well as thrill -- is presented as just another attraction, something else to shoehorn into a trip to Denali.
People sign up for raft trips who have never floated before and have little knowledge of the potential dangers. Some, such as Hubbard, don't even know how to swim.
They sign liability waivers and get a safety screening on what to do if someone falls out of the boat, or if it flips. Grab someone if they are close -- otherwise throw them a rescue rope. If you fall out, stay close.
And they are told how cold the water is -- about 36 degrees. The quick lecture covers the bases but is academic for anyone who has never dipped a foot, much less their whole body, in ice water.
Still, it has proven to be a pretty safe trip. In the past 10 years, only one other person has died in a commercial rafting accident along this part of the Nenana. That was in 1990, when a 72-year-old Massachusetts woman drowned after her raft flipped on Iceworm rapid.
THE CATTLE DRIVE
Last year, an estimated 40,000 people went on guided trips on the 25-mile stretch of river at Denali. At the peak of the season, rafts run almost round the clock ferrying so many tourists that locals jokingly call it the cattle drive.
"It's almost unique in Alaska," said Andy Embick, a long-time kayaker and author of Fast & Cold, a guide to white-water running in Alaska "It's a splashy, thrilling ride close to the road where many tourists are already visiting. . . . . And it's in a place where there isn't that much else to do."
In his book, he describes the Nenana as a fast, powerful river that can flip fully loaded rafts, but for the most part is easy to maneuver with few obstacles.
The Lowe River in Valdez is the only other place with a similar concentration of thousands of tourists next to an accessible and raftable river, he said. There, rafting has become popular among the many cruise ship passengers that come into town, he said.
On the Nenana River, the number of companies offering guided trips has doubled in the past decade from three to six.
They range from big companies like Alaska Raft Adventures, a subsidiary of Denali Park Resorts, a multi-million dollar company that also operates the buses and a hotel inside Denali Park, to the tiny Wolf Spirit Expeditions where the owner is the sole employee.
The tourists take vans straight from the hotel door, sometimes just across the Parks Highway, to the rafting company offices. There they sign liability waivers while they pull on exposure suits and tighten the straps on life jackets. For some, the trip starts after a short walk down the hill where the rafts are lined up on shore. Others are taken in buses south to a spot higher upstream.
The attraction is no mystery. The river is close by and the price -- $50 for the average two-hour trip -- is easy enough to fit into a vacation budget.
There are two main routes: The more difficult "canyon" run and the "scenic," or "wilderness," run. The Massachusetts woman died on a trip down the canyon, which can hold Class IV rapids and has flipped several rafts over the years .
Hubbard and North died on the 13-mile scenic run. It's a tame float, consisting mostly of Class II white water with a few Class III rapids. For the most part, it's about as choppy as a small lake on a windy day.
The rafting company brochures advertise it as a safe adventure for the family. Most companies allow 5-year-olds on this stretch, but impose higher age limits on wilder sections of the river.
It sounded safe enough to the people clambering aboard or climbing out of Nenana River rafts last weekend.
"I think what happened was just a freak accident," said Norma Herrington, after a scenic float with her 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
Joe and Doris Carroll, a retired couple from New Jersey on a package tour, were similarly unconcerned after their float. Doris, 68, said she heard about the accident on the radio while riding on a tour bus near Tok. She never thought about canceling her raft trip.
"It's just something I wanted to do," she said, as she stripped off the rubbery dry suit supplied by the river guide company. "You don't stop flying in planes just because one crashes."
UNUSUAL WATER CONDITIONS
Guides don't generally think of the scenic stretch as dangerous,
Still it has well-known hazards, and one of them is the Yanert Ledge Hole, which is where the Young at Heart group from Georgia -- with Hubbard and North aboard -- got in trouble.
The ledge is named after the Yanert River, a glacial stream that spills into the Nenana River just downstream. The ledge reaches about 10 feet into the river on the left-hand side, facing down river. As the water spills over the top of the rock and washes down, it creates a hole where water recirculates into a backwash. A raft that gets caught in the hole can get pinned against the rock or bounced between the rock and the upwelling waves.
Most of the time, rafters can skirt the ledge by taking a channel just to the right, said Bill Overington, owner of Denali Outdoor Center, which takes about 5,000 people a year down the river.
But those who ran the river around the time of the accident said unusually low water made the ledge more of a hazard.
Because the rock was more exposed, the water poured off at a steeper angle creating a stronger, bigger hole, said John Schauer, a teacher from Fairbanks, who had just finished kayaking the canyon stretch near Healy. The channel skirting the rock was also narrower because of an exposed gravel bar on the right.
"It was the nastiest I'd ever seen it," said Schauer, who said he's been kayaking the Nenana for nearly 20 years. "It was something to have a lot of respect for. You could do loop-de-loops in there."
Bruce Hubbard, in an interview from his home in Georgia, said there was no warning before his party's raft hit the hole. He had seen the rock, but he thought they would go around it. Instead, the raft was pulled into the hole and then pinned against the rock. Water started pouring in. The raft tipped up on its side.
"I thought I was going to die," he said.
The guides told everyone to hold on while they scrambled around trying to use their weight to keep the boat from flipping, he said.
Hubbard's wife passed out.
"She wasn't even holding on," he said. He kept a hold on her life jacket. But he let go, just for a moment, to get a better grip on a safety line, and she was washed or bumped overboard.
"I knew she was gone then," he said.
North also fell out.
The guides later told troopers they estimated they were caught in the hole for 20 minutes before people from other rafts were able to throw them a line and pull them out.
Still it took four men working from shore to get the raft out of the hole, said Bill Tyler, the trooper who investigated the accident.
It's not clear how long the two women were in the water before being pulled out. They never regained consciousness, Tyler said. The state medical examiner said the women drowned after becoming hypothermic.
Whether the accident could have happened to anyone or could have been prevented is a matter of opinion.
Some say they think Hubbard and North's raft never should have left the shore, noting the guide, Kenda Andersen, was new and relatively inexperienced on the Nenana. She was on a training run when the accident happened and was accompanied by a more experienced guide, 41-year-old Peter Carter, troopers said.
The rafting company referred all questions to corporate spokeswoman Debbie Albert in Philadelphia. She would not discuss details of the accident, but said Andersen was on a "check run," to evaluate her abilities.
Others have questioned whether the passengers should have been wearing drysuits instead of Mustang suits. The nylon-covered, insulated Mustangs provide lots of buoyancy, but are not waterproof like a drysuit and the manufacturer does not recommend them for white-water use.
Denali Park Resorts officials, however, say the thick suits keep people warmer than dry suits in cool air and note many river runners use the suits, including other companies on the Nenana.
Hubbard said he doesn't hold anyone responsible, but he still hasn't come to terms with his wife being gone. He noted the couple would have celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary this year.
"We had a lot of good years together," he said. "It's difficult being by myself." Denali Raft Adventures guide Kurt Mueller helps Mary and Joe Geffert of Sayre, Pa., to the edge of the Nenana River recently for their rafting trip. Located just outside Denali National Park, one of the state's top tourist attractions, a number of companies offer quick adventure trips such as flightseeing, rafting and horseback riding. At top, a raft full of tourists splashes through white water on the Nenana.